Never Measuring Up
Alienated from myself: This is how I lived a lot of my life. Certainly I would have moments of feeling peaceful and at home with myself. Sadly, however, I usually felt critical and even hateful of myself, my looks, my body. It is no wonder that I, and a lot of women and men, feel this way. We live in a media-saturated society, and it can be hard to love yourself when you are constantly surrounded by images of perfectly manicured, perfectly airbrushed, exquisitely “in shape” people. We constantly receive the message that we are only acceptable and lovable if we look like the people in magazines or movies.
I certainly absorbed this message. I also absorbed the very unhelpful and damaging message that that my main job was to look pretty for other people and that what they thought about me, not what I thought about me, was the most important thing. This, unfortunately, is a belief that many young girls pick up and carry into their adult years. Again, it is no wonder because this is how the media portrays and treats women. We are an object for someone else’s gaze. When women learn that their main goal is to look attractive for others, and that attractiveness is defined by some unobtainable, perfect, airbrushed standard, we feel shamed. We feel silenced. We feel alienated and learn to hate ourselves. (I think boys and men increasingly struggle with these same issues.)
This is Little Shelly, totally joyful and exuberant about being me, before I learned to be alienated from myself.
Pictures, Objectification, and Liberation
One side effect of my self-alienation was that, generally speaking, I always hated my pictures. They were a vivid reminder to me of how I failed to measure up to impossible beauty standards. Luckily, my husband is an amazing man who is extremely body positive and has always been aware of the harmful pressure the media places on women. Years ago, after observing the constant pressure I placed upon myself and the self-loathing it caused, my husband said, “You need to stop looking at women’s fitness magazines. You are beautiful, and those magazines have unrealistic beauty standards.” He would constantly remind me that women of all shapes and sizes and all types of appearances are beautiful.
John: The best husband that ever was.
My husband was on to something. A 2003 study suggests that reading health and fitness magazines is strongly correlated with body image issues and eating disorders in adolescent girls. It is likely that these images have some of the same effects on grown women as well. Around 80% of American women report being dissatisfied with or hating their bodies and “more than 10 million are suffering from eating disorders”. My husband was one of the first people I ever heard challenge unrealistic beauty standards and the objectification of women. His wisdom gave me the courage that I could challenge them, too.
As I began to challenge these standards, and as I stopped looking at fashion and fitness magazines, it definitely made a difference. My confidence and peace steadily increased. I began to notice the beauty in a wide variety of body sizes, shapes, and in a variety of human expression. The spell of impossible beauty standards cast by perfect media images had been broken, and I started to see beauty everywhere–in myself and and in other people.
Note: The rest of his post is, of course, filled with selfies–selfies of me (in the first part of the post) and selfies of friends (in the second part of the post).
Although I had made such progress in loving myself and in seeing my unique beauty, pictures were still really uncomfortable for me. When I looked at my pictures, I always looked scrunched and miserable. I really wanted my pictures to reflect the new acceptance and growing love for myself I was experiencing. It was about this time that I became aware of selfies. At first I had some trepidation about selfies because initially they seemed like just one more way to obsess about perfection and imperfection and one more experiment in objectification. But then I began to play around with them.
I was in graduate school at this time, and I would often take selfies to relief stress or take a break from reading. I became fascinated. I was fascinated with how I looked in different lighting.
With different backgrounds.
In black and white by myself or in color with friends.
I began discovering different things about my face that I had not noticed before. Sometimes I took selfies that turned out really badly. Often I took selfies that I loved. Throughout the entire process, I really began to know and understand myself. I began to see the different facets of my own unique beauty (and everyone has their own unique beauty). During this time, I used many other tools to cultivate self-love, but selfies were certainly one of the most important tools I used, and this is what selfies taught me about self-love.
What Selfies Taught Me
Selfies taught me that I am in control of how I present myself. I can choose if I want to smile and how I want to smile. I can choose if I want to look happy or sad. I can choose to wear makeup or not wear makeup. I get to decide how I want to look, and my choices are an expression of my unique personality. Loving myself means listening to myself and understanding the different ways I express my uniqueness.
Selfies taught me that my pictures and my looks are primarily for me. I can share them with others, and I certainly enjoy it when people like my selfies. However, I can also take selfies and feel joyful about them without sharing them with anyone. I keep my selfies to myself quite a bit actually. Selfies helped me understand that while we can certainly look at and appreciate one another’s appearance, we never exist solely for someone else’s gaze.
Selfies taught me that I am a nuanced person with a wide variety of moods and looks. I can look glamorous, playful, young, old, contemplative, and joyful. I can take really wonderful selfies and pretty bad selfies. All of these are moments of my life, and I can honor and inhabit all of those sides of me. I can love all my moments.
Selfies taught me that I can use makeup and photo effects to make myself look like a picture in a magazine, and selfies taught me that this is only one kind of beauty. I can take it or leave it. No one has to look like a person in a magazine to be deserving of love.
Why I Love Your Selfies
Because of all of these things selfies taught me, I love my selfies. But I have also discovered that I love other people’s selfies. I love it when my friends post selfies because I love to see people celebrating their own unique beauty. (All of these selfies of my beautiful friends are used with their permission.)
My Friend, Tanya
My Friend, Lisa
My Friend, Jesse
My Friend, Lori
I love it when my friends post selfies because I love seeing them explore different angles of their face and different aspects of their personality.
My Friend, Dede
My Friend, Liz
My Friend, Kirsten
My Friend, Kris
I love their selfies because I love to see people being silly, serious, dramatic, artistic, or whatever.
My Friend, Sarabeth
My Friend, Shane
My Friend, Karissa
My Friend, Amy
My Cousin and Friend, Sarah
I love people’s selfies because I love to see them celebrating themselves and their lives.
My Cousin and Friend, Melissa
My Friend, Lisa
My Cousin and Friend, Erin
My Cousin and Friend, Nikki
I love my selfies, and I love your selfies.
A while ago, after I had started taking selfies and posting them on social media, an acquaintance of mine made a harsh remark about selfies and suggested that I was showing off. I felt crushed. That day I happened to be meeting my friend Jack for coffee. Jack is really wise, and I always appreciate his advice.
This is Jack.
I told him about the critical remark my acquaintance had made and that I worried that maybe without realizing it, I was bragging with my selfies. Jack said, “I don’t think you are bragging, but even if you were, why should people be critical of that? Think of how many times people say horrible and hateful things about themselves, and we never point out how problematic that is. Why do we think it is okay for people to say hateful things about themselves, but we get really critical when it appears that people are even the slightest bit proud of or joyful about themselves?”
Self-Love and Power
Jack really made me think. We run in extremes in our culture. At times we are really egocentric and narcissistic. Other times, maybe most of the time, we are hateful and critical of ourselves. What we need desperately is to find that beautiful place where we can leave both narcissism and self-hate behind and celebrate our own unique beauty as well as the beauty in everyone else. That is true self-love. We may cultivate self-love through selfies or we may cultivate it another way, but whatever way, we need to love and celebrate ourselves. True self-love only enhances all of our lives. It teaches us to honor ourselves and other people. The better we are able to honor ourselves and others, the more we express love freely, the better we understand how to nurture one another, and the more we allow everyone to fully inhabit their lives. This makes us more powerful together.
By the way, if you would like to read more about selfies as a tool for promoting self-love, I think this woman has a really nice take on the issue.
Note: As I was writing this post, I heard from so many people that selfies had been really helpful for them in cultivating confidence and self-love. I would love to hear your stories below about how selfies have helped you. Also, I would love for you to post a selfie below, if you like. Of course, this is a G-rated blog generally speaking, so please keep that in mind. But otherwise, post away.